‘An Interview with a House Master’ Henrik Schwarz
Visionary producer and lauded live performer, Henrik Schwarz is a truly unique electronic artist with a staggeringly creative body of work behind him. Ahead of the release of House Masters Henrik Schwarz – the first attempt to condense his finest musical moments into a single compilation – we caught up with Schwarz to discuss welcoming chaos, electronic experimentation and the effects of looking back over his astonishing career.
Defected presents House Masters Henrik Schwarz is out now at Traxsource
Initially you started your career playing hip hop, rare groove and techno – basically everything. What was it that attracted you to DJing?
Music! Hip hop was the first music that I was into where I thought I needed to get a tune on vinyl. I dunno where that came from but I heard things on the radio and thought ‘I need that record!’ At that time it was difficult because it had only just started to come over from the States and the UK into Germany and so where I was raised, where there were no records available, I had to drive to Switzerland and other big towns to find what I was looking for.
So DJing was your entry into music, but when did you first realise you wanted to do a bit more than that and make music of your own?
I always wanted to make my own music, that’s something I was always sure about, but for some reason I never learned an instrument so the first thing that really interested me was my first tape recorder which I got when I was maybe nine and my brother also got one when he was nine which was two years later. So I started putting them on top of each other, using a microphone to record them because I didn’t know you could put them together with cables. That is sort of how things started. When computers showed up I thought that they could be something that I could use to make music. I bought a sound card for my friend’s computer and struggled hard to get some tones out of it at first but it worked in the end.
Although you didn’t learn to play any instruments initially you’ve now taken piano lessons – do you think that has helped you improve your range as a producer, perhaps compared to people who are solely laptop or analogue based producers?
A difficult question as it’s always dependent on the person. For me it has been very interesting to finally have lessons after working on my own finding out all these tones and notes just by ear for many years. Of course I was using a keyboard to make my music so in a way I learnt many things, however it took a long time to find out certain things like ‘how do you play a melody over this’. Especially when you do a remix and you get vocals and think ‘what can I play along?’. I found that very difficult in the beginning. So with some theoretical knowledge things have gotten much easier, but also at some point you’ve got to overcome this knowledge and go back to the raw original ideas because they are also strong.
Have you found that the piano comes quite naturally to you?
Very naturally, when I started I wished I had done it way earlier!
Jazz has been a clear influence throughout your career: a genre that can often be structurally very malleable. Some would argue that in making house and techno you have to stick to a very rigid structure… do you ever find the 4/4 pattern restrictive?
For me it has always been the opposite. I have felt total freedom in electronic music because the 4/4, for me, is the bridge into the unknown in a way – you can do anything in between two bass drums, and they hold it together. You can do the craziest sound and put a bass drum there and everyone loves it! That’s how I’ve always felt about it, it can be totally open.
You previously said that when you first started making house it sounded wrong because it didn’t sound like anything else. Looking back do you think that is kind of essential in order to make a real impact?
I don’t know, because for me it’s hard to judge my own stuff. Still today I sometimes think ‘this is sounding wrong’ and then somebody might say ‘yeah this sounds so you’, but I can’t hear it. For me this is something I can’t recognise, I just have the feeling something’s wrong here. It doesn’t sound normal. Over the years though I realised that this might be a good thing.
It’s been a long time since you’ve been ‘just’ a DJ… do you ever miss the simplicity of playing somebody else’s records?
Nope. I was just thinking about DJing just a while ago as I have thousands of records at home still. It would be nice to play them of course, because I always loved DJing, but it would be so much work to get into it again. I would want to do it really seriously and I would need half a year to listen just to prepare a set that nobody else would play. Maybe I would do it at some point, but at the moment there would be no time for it.
In the world of electronic music, playing ‘live’ can mean quite a lot of different things… in terms of your live set up, how does it work for you?
Well there’s all the stuff that I ever made in the computer for a start, in parts so I can play around with it. I always try to keep a certain level of chaos as sometimes I feel the computer can give you too much control and the performance gets very stiff and unenergetic. So I try to bring in structures that are difficult to handle, or that can create some chaos, so I need to react to what the computer is doing. I try to make it a vivid system with the audience, the machine and myself just to keep it alive.
You have an exceptionally good relationship with Âme’s Frank Weidemann with whom you perform as Schwarzmann… tell us about the project…
We have been playing together live since we met, which is more than ten years ago now. At some point we thought we wanted to do a proper concept instead of just doing a back to back live show, which was very easy for us as it feels so natural. So we thought, ‘why not play covers of our own music?’ Musically there’s a very strong connection between us so in the beginning it was an experiment to see what happens when nothing is prepared. It’s totally untypically electronic. When we did it for the first time I was super surprised by the reaction of the audience, which was very positive. Maybe in electronic music it’s not often when things happen unprepared which makes what we do more unique. We were both very surprised by the feedback we got from the first show, and we felt that was great.
The longer your career has gone on the more it seems to be moving towards more experimentation and away from what might be termed ‘dance’ music… do you think that’s a fair assessment?
Well if you’ve been doing it for such a long time then I think you end up meeting more people all the time and realising that there are more options open to you, so maybe I felt I could try a few things out, still play my stuff of course, just maybe stretch a little further out and see what’s there. See what it means to transfer electronic for an orchestra, or transfer electronic for a band. So in a way I’m just interested in what I can add to my computer. How does it work? How can I connect it to other worlds? And in a way it feels very natural for me because I’ve had a feeling I’ve done that all the time, just the other way round. I’ve tried to bring things into the computer from outside, sounds that normally don’t belong to electronic music into electronic music and now maybe it turns around a little bit and so I’m trying to bring the computer into the outer world.
Do you think that people pay too much attention to how people create music rather than the music itself?
I think they pay so much attention because it has changed a lot; it’s not just a very limited amount of people that make music, there’s a huge amount of people that create. Everybody wants to be a part of this huge business. The fact that lots of people are doing it on the computer is now part of the culture I think that’s a good thing because in a way we deal with technology all the time and making music is a way of dealing with technology at a very relaxed and at the same time abstract level. So you can try out things in a playful way, very complex and difficult things that you might not otherwise be able to do.
Your House Masters compilation for Defected is out next week. Looking back at the music you’ve made you must be very proud…
I was quite surprised when we were looking at the list of what we could put on there because I was working my ass off over the last ten years and to realise how much there is… yeah I felt quite good about that. And there are some records I really like so I thought it was nice to put them together into a single release because it’s not been done before.
Going back to some of the records you made at the very start of your career, were there any that you hadn’t heard for a while and were pleasantly surprised by?
Not surprised, but it’s interesting to listen to them after so many years of not listening to them. Somehow for me I realise what I’ve learnt since then, or there’s something’s that I’ve done since the beginning that I still do today. Stuff like that is very interesting.
Looking at some records specifically, are there any records that mark specific points in your career? For example, ‘Leave My Head Alone Brain’ was one of your earliest records…
This track was the first track where I had the feeling that now for the first time I have achieved what I want to do, for the first time I had the feeling that the tracks was the melting point of everything I had heard so far. There was jazz, there was techno and there was electronic… everything was there. For the first time I had the feeling I brought them all together in the right way. It was made very quick as often happens when you find something quickly and then it was there, I realised it was something. I felt it from the first moment this was the right thing: I’d managed to recreate what I was hearing in my head accurately.
And your remix of Omar ‘Feeling You’, what is it about a track like that that made you listen to it and think ‘yeah I can do something with that’?
When you’re asked to remix a track with a Stevie Wonder vocal in there you don’t think a second if you would want to do that or not, because if I can’t do something with that then I’m doing it wrong! So I was super happy to get it and when you listen to this vocal without anything else you think “man this is just the best job in the world!”